Meet Dennis D. Feeheley, the author of ‘Travelin Man: Across the Sahara and Beyond’, a top-selling travel memoir that reached #51 on Amazon in its category. Dennis was only 19 years old when he went on this crazy adventure across the Sahara desert with his brother. At that time, there were no phones or GPS, just two young adults going on a nearly impossible journey with very little money and no idea if they were going to make it out alive. Read on to hear about the Feeheley brothers’ journey!
Travelin Man: Across the Sahara and Beyond
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Dennis Feeheley is a 19-year-old teenager with a youthful dream to explore the world when he sets out with his brother John on an ill-advised, but incredible adventure to The Sahara Desert and beyond…The year is 1977. It is long before the internet, cell phones, fax machines or ATMs. Much of the world is truly a mysterious place when the young brothers meet up in London to travel across Western Europe before crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and trekking across the Sahara Desert in Africa – All on $6 a day…
‘Travelin Man’ is a true story bursting with adventure, unexpected humour, keen insights into Muslim culture, and a vivid portrayal of perseverance over adversity. With no maps, little planning, and less money; a fateful decision is made that sets the brothers off on the adventure of a lifetime… After stowing away on a ship across the Mediterranean Sea, the young brothers get lost out in the vast Sahara and run out of money. Yet they must still somehow make it through a dangerous guerilla checkpoint and cross a war zone. An underlying tension builds to the final, frantic minutes and a harrowing decision that could change one of the brother’s lives forever…
Throughout the compelling story, the will and determination of the human spirit shines. The brothers use their wits and nerve to overcome many dangerous obstacles with a good-natured, but relentless do or die attitude. Although they make a truckload of mistakes, with youthful optimism and determination they grit it out and do what they have got to survive. Many life lessons are learned along the way.
1. How did you and your brother come up with the idea for this great adventure?
My brother John and I were young and adventurous. It was over 30 years ago so there were no internet or cell phones. I was only 19 years old and John was 21. We were very young but fearless, and also a little stupid. We hadn’t seen each other in about a year and wanted to travel together during my freshman winter vacation. At the time I was going to university in England. Since it was winter, we figured that it would be warm in The Sahara Desert in Africa. That was really the main reason we decided to go there. We both planned to meet in London at King’s Cross station with 600 dollars each. The plan was to meet at 5 pm, at platform 5, on a certain day in early December. I didn’t know if my brother John was going to be there, since we hadn’t talked to each other in many months. We both did meet up at King’s Cross station like we planned. But instead of having 600 dollars each; I only had 180 dollars and John only had 175 dollars! We talked about it and despite our lack of money, we decided to go for it. And that set us off on an incredible adventure across Europe and Africa.
2. What was the most challenging aspect of your journey?
The money was a huge challenge. We only had $6 a day to live on. That $6 had to cover everything; our food, transportation, ships, hotels… It was tough. My brother and I slept in train stations, under trees, at a Bedouin camp out in the Sahara, in a tractor. We paid for lodging only three times on the 40-day journey and we covered about 4,000 or 5,000 kilometers.
We eventually ran out of money on the trip. While we were hitch-hiking across the Sahara Desert, we were running out of money and we didn’t think we were going to make it back. We got blocked by the Sub-Saharan War. There was no way through on the road we were on. The Policerio guerrillas were controlling the only road and no civilians were allowed, especially a couple of Americans. But we bribed this man, who was a smuggler, to take us through the checkpoint. I call him ‘Scarface’ in my book since he had this terrible scar on his face. He was a dangerous guy, but we had no choice. We bribed him to get us past the soldiers and through the war zone. We had reached a point of no return with no money to go back. We were stuck and had to keep going. Scarface smuggled us through the guerrilla checkpoint. Then he ripped us off. We just had to keep on moving forward. With so little money we relied on stale bread, some cola and the kindness of strangers to make it back.
3. What’s the scariest part of this journey?
There were a few scary and dangerous parts. One scary time was bribing our way through the guerrilla checkpoint that I talked about. No vehicles were allowed, no one was allowed into the war zone. Only supplies or weapons for the soldiers were allowed into that area. It was very dangerous for us to get smuggled through the checkpoint. Scarface hid us in the back of his truck under a tarp. We were buried under supplies for the soldiers. If he had sold us out or we had been caught by the Policerio guerrillas at the checkpoint out in the middle of the Sahara, we could have been shot or forced to fight at the front lines. John and I were terrified. It was a very tense day of my life.
We had some other tense, dangerous times on the trip as well. Another dangerous time was near the end of the trip when we trying to hustle up some money. We were desperate. We knew we could not make it back with the money we had. This was after we had made it past the war zone and then crossed the Algerian-Moroccan border, which we had been told for weeks was closed because of the war. When we finally made it across Morocco into Tangiers, we tried to sell some of our clothes or goods for money. This led us into a very dangerous situation meeting this crazy sheikh late at night in this dark, back alley. He threatened to kill us and we had a tough time escaping. It was an extremely tense night.
4. Shed some knowledge on us! Share some things that you’ve learnt on your journey.
In my book, “Travelin Man: Across the Sahara and Beyond” I tell the story of this incredible travel adventure I had when I was just 19 years old. In the book I also describe a lot of the things I learned on this journey; I learned about cultures, negotiations, people, money – how to save and use money, about reading people. I also learned all about safety. It was 30 years ago. There was no internet, no cell phones, no ATM machines. I had no way of contacting home or getting assistance. So my brother John and I had to handle any dangerous situations or challenges ourselves. Safety was always a priority. I developed excellent safety habits. It was tough, but also a great learning experience at a young age… I had a great formal education studying at Oxford University in England and getting a degree in political science from George Washington University. But I think I learned as much from my travel experiences as I did from my formal studies.
On this adventure, I also learned a great deal about Muslim culture. I experienced Muslim culture in its basic form. I only spoke one word to one woman on the entire trek across the Sahara. Women were always covered and in the shadows. Although we were so different and unique to the local villagers, they still treated us with great kindness. Many of the villages we travelled to out there in the Sahara, no one had seen Americans or foreigners before. But they were usually so welcoming and treated us like long lost brothers. It was a fascinating experience.
5. This happened over 30 years ago but from the way you’re describing it, it feels like it happened only a few days ago. How were you able to recall all the details so clearly?
I kept a detailed daily journal where I wrote down what I did day-to-day.. what I saw.. where I went.. what I thought. I’ve been asked a couple of times in interviews if everything I write about in my book is true. It is true. Not only is it true, but it is also accurate. I kept a journal for about 12 years from the age of 16 to my late 20’s. So I have a really complete record of what I did for those years. Also during that trip and other adventures I sent postcards to my family, and I wrote a lot of information on the postcards. My mother kept them. I also kept photos that helped me remember people and places. I actually remember many parts of that journey and experiences from that time of my life – more clearly than I remember things I did a week ago!
I had some magical, amazing experiences when I was very young. I haven’t talked about this before, but there are three or four stories and events from my life that are more dramatic and more dangerous than anything I have written about or ever talked about. There are a few experiences that I have never talked about publicly or privately. Ever. I have never talked about those experiences to anyone, with the exception of one story that I told my mom before she passed. I probably never will. Those are mine.
6. If you had the chance, what would you change about your journey?
I would do a lot of things differently today. Back then I was young and fearless. Both my brother John and I had a do or die attitude when we were young. I travelled to over 30 countries before I was 21 years old. John must have travelled to about 40 countries of the same age. Before he finished his travels John travelled to 70-80 countries. I’ve been to about 55 countries. We paid every dime of our travels ourselves. It was very tough. I was basically following in my older brother’s footsteps. I followed his lead. In our younger travelling days we were fearless, but also a little bit stupid. We did some things we shouldn’t have done, we should’ve planned better, and we should have had more money. We made a ton of mistakes. But the bottom line is we did it.
The biggest problem back then was money. I had so little money to travel with. Another thing was that we went to places and did things no-one was supposed to do. Like travelling unrestricted behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ during the Cold War. Or hitchhiking 1,500 kilometers across the Sahara Desert with no maps or food. Or travelling across Muslim Algeria. I was told Algeria did not issue visas to outsiders for over 20 years. Or trading black market in communist Czechoslovakia. It was dangerous. Many of those things I would never do today. But back then I was young. I knew it was my time and I was following my dreams. I have no regrets. You live and learn.
8. You were only 19 years old when you travelled with your brother to the Sahara Desert. Not only that, at the age of 18, you moved to England and studied at Oxford University and went to Africa, Europe and many other countries. That’s an incredible accomplishment! What would you advise to those teenagers of the age of 19?
For young people, I tell them to follow your dreams. Sometimes you just got to take the first step. There’s no perfect time to follow your dreams..There’s no perfect time to change your job, or to move to a new city, or to travel, or to do something you always wanted. At some point, you just have to take that first big step and go for it.
Also, my brother John and I had a motto we travelled by, which is ‘You do what you gotta do’. Sometimes there is no great option or choice. You just have to evaluate your situation and make the best decision you can. Then do what you gotta do. Don’t whine or complain or hesitate. Make your decision and do the best you can. When we went on this adventure, I was 19 years old and John was 21. We had almost no money. The whole journey was not perfect. We made a truckload of mistakes. But we still went ahead and did it, and we learned a lot through it too. It was tough, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
The other thing I would tell young people is to make the most of your youth. When I was young I had a strong sense of my youth. I knew I was young. I knew it was my time to travel, explore and experience the world. I knew many of the places and experiences I had were unique and would never come again. I made a point of burning in my memory certain places and events from my youth. I cherish those memories and I will never forget them.
You can find out more about Dennis Feeheley and see what he’s up to on his website!